The last couple of years has been very fruitful for my understanding of roleplaying. I feel like I’ve got a better grasp of what’s going on at the table around me than I did a couple of years ago.
While the majority of my RPG theory thinking over the past few years has been heavily geared towards how to be a better player, 2008’s games have really helped re-establish in my mind the primacy of the GM as a facilitator of fun. While a lot of techniques we’ve talked about can make a player an asset to the game, the GM will always have a greater effect on the game than any individual player (at least in a traditional game.) And, unfortunately, in the game I ran in 2008, I came to think that the lame duck at the table was probably me.
So I now turn my attention to what I like about GMing, what I do well, and what I like a GM to do. I find a lot of GMs are very strong “at the table” – they can hold the game together and portray characters well. I think I’m one of those GMs. My great weakness has always been before the game starts: preparing the game. One of the major benefits of the SDC was that it helped me really think in clear terms about what I was actually doing as a GM, and how I was actually putting together my games.
Traditionally, for my investigative games, I relied on flow-charts and inter-linked Mind Maps. This meant I’d usually thought through everything in the “world”, but had very little idea about how the game would actually unfold. It was difficult for me to predict just what parts of an adventure would occur in any given session. And unfortunately, I was caught flat-footed more than once by holes in my chronology or “world/adventure” construction. Not usually to do with information, but in terms of reacting to some bit of PC activity: because my method never looked explicitly at any PC experience.
The big break-through I had in my preparation method for my very successful Victorian Buffy was to prep scenes, rather than locations, timelines or characters. The way I thought about this at the time was as a sequence of story “events”. These were, in effect, a modified form of flow-chart. Scenes though, also specifically place a PC into an environment, giving a much more predictable game flow.
I’ve started to be able to break down scenes a lot better than I was doing even 3 or 4 years ago. Looking back at Gaslight, I can see that I was just scratching the surface in terms of how you prepare a game. Comparing those notes to the level of interaction and detailing I finally achieved for Death on the Streets, makes my preparations seem almost nominal rather than useful.
Repeating myself: the key difference is that scenes focus on what actually happens at the gaming table, whereas flow-charts and even location/event summaries, tend to be at a more abstract level. A scene is a very specific thing, and, most usefully, can be framed to have a touch of momentum. You can readily spot the difference in passages of boxed text in D&D scenarios. The boxed text which describes the furniture and mentions the wizard preparing to attack you is a location. The boxed text which describes a wizard begining an incantation, who happens to be in a room, is describing the begining of a story event: it’s a scene.
Perhaps I’m over-stepping things here in terms of adopting ordinary english words for my explanation, but I hope the idea is clear.
The most recent development that I’m starting to see in my planning is a more sophisticated understanding of what actually happens in a scene: what it’s purpose is. Or, more likley, what uses it could be put to given the initial framing. In line with The New Columboism‘s general theme, scenes need to have the potential to do more than one thing. For Death on the Streets, my Fright Night 2008 game, I wrote every scene with a potential conflict and a potential clue. Some clues and conflicts were contingent on others, but most transpired not to be. The PCs player the adventure “out of sequence” – but never off the outskirts of my planning.
The pithy summary of what a scene can aim to do:
I have consciously omitted exposition, but only based on my personal opinion and experience that information for the sake of it is a boring thing to play out. Information should always accompany something palpably interesting and affecting. YMMV.
This post made me realize that my four points here are, in effect, one face of the current roleplaying orthodoxy.
The distinctions drawn in my four “objectives” are as follows:
Conflicts are moments of story change and growth. Beyond the obvious meaning that there is a disagreement resolved in some way, I think conflicts usually ricochet away from the nominal matter at hand. Both the winner and loser are usually changed by them. Dogs in the Vineyard is one game that genuinely seems to have these. You meet a farmer and tell him to take back his wife, but through the process of escalation, you draw in an increasingly wide array of subjects, until eventually both sides usually accrue mechanical changes that they carry with them for the rest of the game and affect what they do and how they do it.
Confrontations are a more normal mode of PvP interaction, as two forces meet: but don’t resolve or change as a result. Often enough, one side might be obliterated by the other and continue unchanged, but often enough neither will. A fight in D&D will typically be a confrontation, and so, often enough are disagreements between PCs where both sides entrench and the GM arbitrarily moves the game ahead to prevent the activity stalling.
Conundrums are moments of revelation and free choices. Generally they’d be moments when information is revealed that changes the characters’ perception of the reality around them. “Luke, I am your father” is a conundrum: what the hell is Luke supposed to do with this information? It’s not merely exposition, because it changes the ground-rules he perceives in the world around him.
Consequences are simply the revelation of the story arc’s close. We would typically associate them with small things: I lost the fight and as a “consequence” have fewer hitpoints, or whatever. In the longer view, the PC will often simply find out about things already in the past. It too is more than simply information: when Kleon finds out that his only son is dead, that’s a consequence, and it shakes his world, but demands no action of him.
I’m sure that doesn’t cover everything that could happen in a scene, but if your scene can readily lead towards two of those, then whatever happens it won’t end up being too dull.
The biggest drawback to trying to write games this way has been linked to above: games can become almost frenetic. Players and their characters can end up without a chance to breathe, or, in the crux of the argument, be explored as people rather than cogs in a story machine.